It’s been covered by Steve Morse, Steve Lukather and Eddie Van Halen – but if Joe Satriani and Brian May tackled Joy to the World, it would sound a little something like this

Joe Satriani wearing a Santa hat
(Image credit: Jen Rosenstein/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

This lesson is taken from the new issue of Guitar Techniques, which features six Christmas carols in six modern styles, available now from Magazines Direct.

It’s that time of year again! To give you some fun during the holidays I have taken one of the best-loved Christmas hymns and reimagined it with a new rock arrangement, adapting the chords as well as the melody. 

This hymn has been around a very long time, but interestingly enough it was never intended as a Christmas song, with the lyrics referring to the second coming of Christ.

The song started life as a poem written by renowned composer Issac Watts, later adopting the musical arrangement by American composer, Lowell Mason. Joy To The World is one of the most popular hymns, and has been covered by many artists and in many different styles. It’s even been recorded by some of our favourite guitar players. 

Steve Morse produced a wonderful version on the 1997 Merry Axemas: A Guitar Compilation, while Steve Lukather and Eddie Van Halen traded licks on the fusion-style arrangement from Luke’s 2003 release, Santamental. So, as you can see, our hymn presents a platform for interpretation.

For my arrangement I imagined what the song would sound like if it were performed by Joe Satriani and Brian May, so you get an idea of what I was thinking when putting this together. I opted for a 6/8 time signature, to give the track a different feel from other versions I had heard. 

Harmonically, it’s based predominantly around a I-IV-V chord progression, and while I have kept the original harmonic structure, I also employed some basic chord substitutions, swapping major chords for relative minor, again altering the harmonic feel of the piece. I have also used ‘pivotal’ chords, in other words using one chord as a way of changing between keys to enable the introduction of new chords.

The song is in B major, treating B major as chord I. But this can also be viewed as chord IV of F# major allowing the introduction of the C# chord, bringing a nice Mixolydian flavour to the melody.

Plus, it was also treated as chord V of E major, allowing modulations to E for the last verse. You can also notice other similarities between the keys with other chords being used for further harmonic colour.

If you look at all three keys mentioned and list the seven diatonic chords, you can see how certain chords appear in different keys, but at a different scale position, which in turn implies different harmony:


B major: B C#m D#m E F# G#m A#dim

E major: E F#m G#m A B C#m D#dim

F# major: F# G#m A#m B C# D#m E#dim

While some chords appear twice in other keys, B major appears in all three, on positions I, IV and V. Viewing this chord’s construction from different scale degrees allows us to introduce non-diatonic chords to our B major I-IV-V progression, drastically changing their sound and structure. This is a great technique to use when composing your own progressions.

Good luck, and Joy to you all! 

Get the tone

Amp Settings: Gain 9, Bass 7, Middle 8, Treble 8, Reverb 4

I played my Music Man Axis into a Mesa/Boogie JP2-C, using the Mesa CabClone IR with a 2x12 Mesa IR, TC Electronic 2290 DT delay, and Ernie Ball wah pedal. For the clean intro I added a pitch-shifting reverb from Line 6 Helix Native. Aim for a high-gain lead tone, and push the midrange as well as the presence in order to achieve those high overtones on top of the sustain.

Performance notes

[Bars 1-9] We kick our arrangement off with a chord figure that implies the main melodic theme. The chords are based around triads performed on the fourth, third and second strings, using pick and fingers. 

The rhythm picks up for the second half of this section with a climbing D shape of E major, F#add11 and B major, all of which include the open second string. Take care with the final B to Bsus2 figure which features a tricky hammer-on on the sixth string.

[Bars 10-21] These bars introduce the main melodic theme which is based around the B major scale, with the diatonic modes of E Lydian and F# Mixolydian being implied against the accompanying E major to F# major chords. 

Pay attention to the phrasing throughout this section, which includes bends, trills, whammy bar phrasing plus a fast legato phrase at [bar 16]. Work on your phrasing and delivery, applying vibrato for an anthemic delivery.

[Bars 21-29] Our second theme is arranged to include the melody as well as some outlining triad arpeggios. Once again pay attention to phrasing and delivery. There’s some chord substitution here, with the G# minor being included at [bar 22]; normally this section would start on the I chord. 

[Bars 30-37] This new section is based on the main melody but with a twist. More chord substitution, too, with the opening B major chord substituted with a G# minor, while the F# major chord is substituted for a D# minor. 

This section also makes use of the aforementioned  ‘pivotal’ chord approach which redirects us to the key of F# major. This also allows us to include the C# major chord, or chord V, which is outlined with a tasty D# Mixolydian descending run. 

[Bars 54-57] Here we reprise the second half of our first theme from back at bars 54-57, with the melody being played an octave higher to build the dynamic of the piece as we come out of the solo. 

[Bars 58-65] Here’s another theme we encountered back at the beginning of the piece, but again this is now performed an octave higher for more intensity and to imply a climax. This section concludes with a nice and bluesy descending B major pentatonic run.

  • To learn more Christmas carols in contemporary guitar styles, pick up the new issue of Guitar Techniques from Magazines Direct.

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